Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh
ALL ACADEMICS who are committed teachers understand the importance of reflecting, openly and critically, on our own practice. But during the first months of the pandemic, we were so focussed on making the quick shift to digital teaching that it was impossible to find the “safe space” to reflect on what we were doing. While we worried about our students’ unequal access to technology and the lack of evidence to ensure our online assessments were fair, we also witnessed the extent of unequal suffering during lockdown. The Albert Kennedy Trust had advised our LGBT+ students to “press pause on coming out” because escalating cases of domestic violence toward young queer people showed that lockdown at home “was at best a difficulty and at worst actively dangerous.” The novel coronavirus frightened us all but it imperilled an unequal proportion of colleagues and students from Black and South Asian backgrounds, irrespective of socioeconomic context. How could our sprint to support our students, and each other, create the scope for reflective practice on teaching during that awful time?
In May 2020, History UK launched its research-based Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, “to provide emergency assistance to historians, … as they transition to online teaching in response to Covid-19 restrictions.” Its website tallied 4500 hits within 12 weeks, suggesting its popularity beyond historians. By “emergency,” the authors meant “pedagogical emergency”—but we were facing a cluster of crises throughout that spring and summer. When governments announced the cancellation of final-year exams, and that universities would offer places to school leavers on their “calculated” or “predicted” outcomes, historians anticipated a reopening of the racial disadvantage gap that marked our discipline. For many years “predicted grades” had been lower than “achieved grades” among even the highest-achieving pupils from South Asian and Black ethnic groups. So in line with the commitments we made in our Report on Race, Ethnicity, and Equality in UK History (2018), the Royal Historical Society hosted a virtual workshop in June, to understand the impact of the Covid crisis on minority-ethnic admissions to higher education.
Peter D’Sena, RHS Vice President, observed at the time that “we are not facing a crisis, but rather crises born of racial injustice compounded by a health crisis.” Epidemiologists had explained for years that social and economic inequalities, created and sustained by racism, led to health inequality among minoritised-ethnic communities across Britain. Indeed, by midsummer, patterns of pandemic-related illness highlighted these racial disparities, even when researchers accounted for geographical and socioeconomic factors. In one East London hospital, Black patients were 80% and Asian patients 54% more likely to require invasive mechanical ventilation than white patients. To think about pandemic pedagogy separately from this humanitarian catastrophe in 2020 was as difficult as teaching in a surgical mask in 2021 while trying not to worry about the seats left empty by the variable number of self-isolating students.
When the tough academic year 2020/21 ended, History UK undertook a study of inclusive pedagogy among History departments across the four nations. Led by Dr Sarah Holland, Education Officer of HUK and Dr Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh, History UK are undertaking a series of meetings with focus groups comprising directors of EDI and directors of teaching from 21 HEIs. Having read the RHS report on race, and considered the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, in addition to a series of questions, we held our initial meetings with representatives of five institutions associated with the East Midlands Centre for History Teaching and Learning. These provided an opportunity for historians to reflect openly on our practice as educators, in the company of similarly exhausted yet eagerly communicative colleagues who were committed to fairness in higher education.
These consultations consider the key priorities and challenges for History as a subject for inclusive teaching. What work had historians undertaken before the pandemic? Have efforts to mitigate the damage of Covid-19 shifted strategies to extend equality, diversity, and inclusion across historical curricula? Although our departments range in size, demographics, recruitment strategies, and areas of emphasis, colleagues suggest that before the pandemic hit, action on inclusiveness tended to originate among students and staff. But with so many new guidelines coming down from senior administration during the pandemic, the directional flow towards ensuring equality has changed. From 1999/2000, HEFCE (now the Office for Students or OFS) has funded Widening Participation (WP) programmes to help universities recruit and retain students from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas or backgrounds; it also supports access for students with visible or invisible disabilities. Consequently, senior university administrators have pointed to their quantifiable success in WP to illustrate that their campuses are inclusive places for historically disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the shift to digital teaching during the pandemic may have enabled universities to raise their ambitions on access. We have noticed that the phrase “reducing attainment gaps” (which implies a deficit in student performance) has become “eliminating awarding gaps” (implying problems with teaching and assessment). This bolder ambition reflects the apparent ability of all students to engage with digital learning regardless of where or who they are. Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of disability, which has led universities to showcase online teaching that will reach disabled students without discriminating among or against them.
We see two problems here. The first is that the criteria that the Office for Students and universities have used to define WP originate in the Dearing and Kennedy reports of 1997. By retaining these criteria, universities pre-empt an intersectional understanding of disadvantage that students and their tutors now see more clearly. As we noted earlier, members of minoritised ethnic communities experience life-threatening disadvantage even when we factor for economic and geographical context. But WP funding to retain disadvantaged students has been allocated according to a definition of “at-risk” that refers only to students’ age and entry qualifications. Colleagues we met are calling for an intersectional analysis of recruitment data and strategies, to reflect the broader thinking on vulnerability, equality, and access.
Second, students who can access the internet may not be able to engage with digital content on an equal footing. Universities have funded digital versions of more if not all the content that students need for their courses, and this is an excellent step forward. But even if all students can access the required technology, not all will have a quiet space in which to read, think, and write, free of caring responsibilities. Some students report that their homes become unsafe when they access course content on topics that address sexuality, race, and religion. Attempts to decolonise the historical curriculum take on new meaning when teaching and learning moves online. Whilst some colleagues are painfully aware of the challenges students might face engaging with such material at home, the move online assumed an exclusive learning environment. When students find such matters ignored by celebrations of digital teaching strategies, they may assume that their university will not offer flexibility or support, or that their university cannot recognise why supportive community matters. Whatever the reality, these perceptions are incredibly important and can have a profound impact on the lives of students. Colleagues are pleased by the eagerness of universities to narrow or eradicate disadvantage gaps and to recognise those disabilities that have prevented students to attend classes in person. But this enthusiasm may side-line those students whose experience was never anticipated by major inclusion strategies at institutional level.
Meleisa Ono-George’s critique of the RHS Report on Race, Ethnicity, and Equality in UK History argued that attending to achievement disparities must extend to “a decolonised, anti-racist and engaged classroom” in which students will be “encouraged to be active participants in the classroom community.” Now, as the pandemic continues, students tell us that “classroom community” means something different than it did before we switched to masks, monitors, and deepening experiences of financial precarity. The thoughtful conversations we had about creating “safer spaces” and “fostering community” for our students and for each other, before March 2020, have changed. We now must account for the intellectual, emotional, and economic consequences of infection, associated disability, chronic illnesses, and death among our Black, South Asian, and less affluent students and their families. The Sutton Trust has found that during the past year, 30% of students were less able to afford their studies, and 34% had lost a job, worked reduced hours, or not been paid by their employer. For the first time in a decade, the awarding gap has stopped closing. Many of these students lack the “wider pastoral preparedness” that would build emotional and intellectual resilience. How can universities generate a sense of belonging for these students in the context of such far-reaching yet ultimately personal shifts? These are individual as well as broader crises, and to address them in ways that meet these clear but shifting conditions, senior administrators and teaching staff must work together to understand our students intersectionally. The pandemic offers opportunities to learn, and this will entail thinking about the pedagogical implications of equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies that were created at a different time, to meet different challenges.
 How Coronavirus Has Affected the LGBT+ Community, Bardardo’s, 2020.
 Public Health England, Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, 2020.
 A. Merrydew, “The History UK Pandemic Initiative,” CUCD Bulletin, 49 (2020).
 G. Wyness, The Rules of the Game, (London: Sutton Trust, 2017). R. Murphy and G. Wyuness, “Minority Report: The Impact of Predicted Grades on University Admissions of Disadvantaged Groups, (London: UCL, 2020).
 J. Nazroo, “The Structuring of Ethnic Inequalities in Health: Economic Position, Racial Discrimination, and Racism,” American Journal of Public Health, 93 (February 2003): 277-84.
 Public Health England, Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, 2020.
 Y. Wan and V. Apea, “‘49% More Likely to Die’ – Racial Inequalities of COVID-19 Laid Bare in Study of East London Hospitals,” The Conversation, (27 January 2021).
 L. Bowes, et al. The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation, Edge Hill University, 2013.
 M. Ono-George, “Beyond Diversity: Anti-Racist Pedagogy in British History Departments,” Women’s History Review, 28 (2019): 500-7.
 R. Montacute and E. Holt-White, Covid-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief, no. 2, Sutton Trust, May 2020.
 J. Hutchinson et al, Education in England: Annual Report 2020, (Educational Policy Institute); for Scotland, see P. Scott, The Impact of Covid-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education, (Commissioner for Fair Access, Scottish Government, 2020).
 See D. Woolley and A. Shukla, “A Call to Action on Widening Participation in the Era of Covid-19,” Higher Eduation Policy Institution, 8 June 2020. For the foundational scholarship on resilience, see C. Dweck et al, Academic Tenacity, (Seattle: Gates Foundation, 2014).